The House last night easily defeated a key amendment to the 1990 farm bill that would have excluded rich farmers from agricultural subsidies.

The Senate worked into the night but recessed before completing work on its version of the farm bill, which will regulate the nation's agriculture for the next five years. Both houses waded through agendas full of amendments as the debate moved into its closing stages.

Congressional estimates call for a budget of $53 billion to $54 billion to spend on crop subsidies and other benefits over the life of the bill. But both houses concede that the available funds are likely to plunge once the budget summit weighs in with anticipated cuts.

Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture John Campbell said the summit was "probably looking at additional cuts for the first year {of the farm bill} of a little more or a little less than $1 billion," and between $8 billion and $20 billion for the entire five years. Most of the money will be chopped out of crop subsidy programs that have served as the bulwark of U.S. agriculture policy for decades.

Still, said House Agriculture Committee Chairman E "Kika" de la Garza (D-Tex.), "We don't think we're spinning wheels.

"We need to do what we're doing regardless of budget; we have to set our policy," de la Garza said. "Of course we understand that some of what we have done may be undone."

House farm bill debate ended until Friday after de la Garza and the Agriculture Committee won a major victory in the House defeat by a vote of 263 to 159 of an amendment denying crop subsidies to farmers with adjusted gross incomes in excess of $100,000.

The amendment, crafted by a coalition of urban liberals and suburban conservatives led by Reps. Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), had aroused interest as an effort by outsiders to reshape programs crafted by the Agriculture Committee's experts.

"These farmers are people who are very, very rich," Schumer said in defense of the amendment. "If they need a subsidy, everybody needs a subsidy."

Schumer and other supporters emphasized that the measure affected only 21,000 of the nation's 2.2 million farmers and could save the government up to $700 million per year in program payments.

Opponents argued successfully, however, that forcing rich farmers out of subsidies could encourage overproduction, lower farm prices and result in greater payments to those farmers still in the programs, negating any possible savings.

"If you take the largest farmers out of the program you no longer have a successful program," said Rep. Glenn English (D-Okla.). "The only way a farm program makes sense is if we have one that requires everyone to carry out the same tasks."

Opponents also got a helping hand from environmental groups who said in letters to de la Garza that exclusion from subsidies would exempt large farmers from soil and wetlands conservation measures mandated under the programs.

The Schumer-Armey amendment inspired almost four hours of debate, with tart exchanges between supporters eager to exclude "fat cat farmers" from subsidies and opponents charging that taking "a meat ax" to the programs would ruin them for everybody.

"How can you accuse a former shoeshine boy from Mission, Texas, of protecting the rich and the greedy?" shouted de la Garza to cheers from the floor. "Ridiculous!"